When Maj. Mieczysław Pruszyński recalled people of various nationalities with whom the soldiers of the Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade were cooperating during World War II, next to Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Frenchmen, Englishmen and Afrikaners, he mentioned the Foreign Legion as a completely a separate "nation". It is a part of the French army, but it shaped its soldiers according to its own military traditions. What makes the legionaries a separate military nation?
Krzysztof Korczyński talks to Krzysztof Schramm about the hopes of Poles to regain independence thanks to the fights alongside the French, the black legend of the Foreign Legion and the ties that connect the soldiers of this formation.
The Foreign Legion is the only regular military formation in the modern world made up almost exclusively of foreigners who serve for the other country. Today, there is 8,900 soldiers representing around 140 nationalities. Formation accounts for 11% of the total French armed forces. This multitude of languages, customs and cultures is not an obstacle to creating a perfectly trained modern army. Every legionnaire begins his service by learning French. The set of rules and traditions, adopted at the beginning of the formation's existence, is the foundation for the creation of a new soldier - a soldier of the Foreign Legion. According to the motto "Legion our homeland" [Legio Patria Nostra], issues of racial, national or religious differences do not matter - every legionnaire is brother for the other one. Although Legion is a part of the French armed forces, it remains separate in terms of organization and tradition. This way, the bond of legionnaires is being built. It emphasizes their separateness and uniqueness. To this day, traditions related to: uniforms - white kepi and green-red parade epaulettes have survived; ceremonial and symbolic - Legion's relic: a prosthesis of Captain Danjou's hand, who was a hero of the battle for the Camerone hacienda in Mexico, or the symbol of the Legion - exploding grenade with seven flames; the celebration of traditional holidays, such as Christmas or regimental holidays, and with specific rules of everyday life - such as the manner of reporting to the commander, attention to uniforms and equipment, specific ways of ironing the shirt.
History of Foreign Legion begins in the 1830s and from the very beginning - Polish volunteers constituted a significant percentage in this formation. At some point, there were so many of them that they started talking about the "Polish-French Foreign Legion"
The history of Poland and France has been repeatedly interwoven. The slogans of the French Revolution gave inspiration to many people around the world, including us. It was precisely the desire to regain freedom lost as a result of the partitions that caused us great hopes in this country. Józef Wybicki and Gen. Jan Henryk Dąbrowski have created the Polish Legions. Poles bravely fought under the command of the Gen. Bonaparte in northern Italy. They were convinced that they have just started the march towards liberation, from the land of Italy to Poland. This campaign did not fulfill Poles' dreams, but hope for French help, remained. Few years later, as a French emperor already, Napoleon Bonaparte listened to Wybicki and Dąbrowski. He believed that the Poles were worthy to be a free nation and that dream came true - the Duchy of Warsaw was established. Napoleon's defeat was also our defeat. However, sentiment and hope for a joint struggle for freedom together with the French, remained for a long time.
When have another chance appeared for further fighting alongside the French?
In 1831, the Foreign Legion was established. In the first half of the nineteenth century, thousands of political emigrants arrived to France, often participants of revolutionary movements and national uprisings, such as the Polish independence uprising of 1831. They hoped that together with the French, they would start their march towards independent Poland again. However, it did not happen. Paris did not intend to engage in European wars, it focused on building an empire.
Already in the summer of 1831, the first legionaries arrived to Algeria. Sidi Bel Abbès became a stronghold of the Legion. In practice, this city was founded around the Legion's barracks. First seven battalions of the Foreign Legion were of national character, including German, Italian, Spanish, Belgian and Polish battalions. It was officially founded on July 1st, 1834, and consisted of 683 legionnaires, including 21 Polish officers. Maj. Tadeusz Horain, a participant of the November night, a knight of the Cross of the Golden War Order of Virtuti Militari became the commander. After the uprising, he emigrated to France. He found himself in the circle of supporters of Prince Adam Czartoryski, and in part, at his command, he undertook to create a Polish battalion of the Foreign Legion. He hoped that it would be a formation similar to that of Dąbrowski. The Polish battalion was dissolved along with the implementation of nationality mix.
According to available statistics, in between 1831 and 1879, over 1,500 Poles served in the ranks of the Foreign Legion. They fought in various parts of the world - in Africa, Spain and Mexico. They took part in the Crimean, Italian-Austrian, French-Prussian wars and in suppressing the Paris Commune. It is worth to recall the names of several our countrymen who were legionnaires. Some of them are extraordinary figures, such as Aleksander Walewski, Maksymilian Sułkowski or the Rzewuski brothers.
After the outbreak of World War I, the first Polish formations in France, like the famous bayoneers, were created as part of the Foreign Legion. Soldiers of this formation were also present in the Gen. Józef Haller's Blue Army. Poles were often meeting with legionaries during World War II - Podhale riflemen at Narvik, and Carpathian riflemen in Africa. Were there any campaigns and battles in which the Poles fought side by side with the legionaries, often their compatriots, in the French service?
The interwoven fates of Polish troops and legionnaires during World War II are quite well documented. However, attention should be paid to the involvement of Polish soldiers in Indochina in the fifth decade of the last century (and later). Zygmunt Jatczak is a figure symbolizing this fight against the communists, a soldier of the Home Army, a Warsaw insurgent and finally a soldier of the 13th Half-Brigade of the Foreign Legion, in which he fought in Indochina. There were many like him, but Poles mostly deserters - also served the other side. There are known cases of interrogating Polish legionaries, who were taken as prisoners by their compatriots.
Modern times are a completely new chapter in mutual relations. Polish legionnaires met soldiers of the Polish Army during conflict in the former Yugoslavia . Serving as a part of the UN troops, connected them. Then the missions undertaken by NATO, again gave legionnaires and the Polish Army a possibility of cooperation. Mainly in Afghanistan. In addition, soldiers of the Polish Army have been trained by soldiers of the Legion for several years. They have already participated in several training exercises in French Guiana under the supervision of 3rd REI instructors, where they learned the art of survival and methods of fighting in the jungle. They proudly wear CEFE badges on their uniforms [Le Center d'entraînement à la forêt équatoriale - Equatorial Forest Training Center].
During the interwar period, a kind of fashion for the Foreign Legion begins in mass culture. Adventures of legionnaires in various exotic wars were being described in thousands of publications, radio programs, and above all - on the silver screen. At that time, the dark legend of Legion began to appear. It was being depicted as a formation which would allow shady characters, driven to fight the rebelling French colonies, to join its ranks. How true is this stereotypical image?
The idea of conquest of North Africa was born at the court of King Louis Philippe. It began with the colonization of Algeria, but the use of French troops was insufficient in order to succeed. Hence the idea that the king would set up foreign units made of from foreigners, which in the name of France were to take part in the conquest of Algeria. This way, the colonial empire of France in which the Foreign Legion served, began to exist.
Anonymity offered by the Foreign Legion attracted many different people. Criminals and adventurers found shelter there - that's true. However, it is not possible to generalize and perpetuate widespread myths. The percentage of people having problems with courts and enlisting to the Legion was never big.
The source of the anonymity was based on the royal regulation establishing the Foreign Legion. In article 7, it was written that a candidate who does not have documents confirming his identity will be sent back to the officer who will decide on his possible involvement. At that time it was difficult to predict the consequences of such record. High command, from the very beginning was skeptical about engagement only on the basis of declared name. Over time, it became clear that this gate was a good solution for the Legion. Volunteers, who in exchange for anonymity were ready to give their lives for France and Legion, were able to join its ranks.
Now, Foreign Legion does not accept people who have perpetrated serious crimes, such as murder or rape. Please note that back in the day, without a global police data verification system, chances of accepting people who had criminal records were much greater. Today, every recruit is being checked by Legion's counterintelligence and Interpol's structure. Applicant, who is wanted by the police and has been entered into the database, is handed over to the police without delay. Legion does not want such people.
After World War II, the situation in our country made many Polish recruits join the Foreign Legion. But why are Poles serving in this formation today?
Number of Poles serving in the Legion is not accessible to the public. According to the provided information, less than 18% of its soldiers came from Central Europe and 22% of its soldiers is of Slavic origin. It can therefore be estimated that several hundred of our countrymen serve in the Legion. As for the motivation, some want to experience the adventure, experience a hard male life, get excellent military training, and others are simply guided by economic reasons. Struggle for independent Poland, definitely faded away, because we already have it.
How much did this formation change at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries?
Foreign Legion of our time is a military formation of the highest standards. Trainings are being conducted in terms of participation in intervention operations in every corner of the world and in various landscapes such as - mountains, jungles, deserts - or in terms of creating rapid reaction forces. Extensive participation of the Legion in anti-terrorist operations, both at home and abroad is a separate aspect. 2nd Regiment of Foreign Paratroopers is one of the most elite units of this type in the French army. GCP is the elite of this elite, and as a group of parachute commandos is being used for special operations. Among others, Sgt. Konrad Rygiel, fallen in Afghanistan in June 2010 served in this unit.
Could you refer to the two most popular slogans of the Foreign Legion cited in the title of our conversation?
"March or die" - this motto showed the character of the Legion, formation performing assigned tasks at all costs, because, according to the legionnaires' code, "the mission is holy". This is the motto of tough, well-trained Soldiers, dedicated to the Foreign Legion. It could have happened because the second motto "Legio Patria Nostra" co-operated with it because this unit really is a homeland to those legionnaires.
Krzysztof Schramm is a historian focused on the history of the Foreign Legion and the head of the Historical Section of the Association of Former Soldiers and Friends of the Foreign Legion in Poland.
autor zdjęć: arch. Krzysztofa Schramma